All posts by Alexandrea Beh

Knowledge Junkie, Avid Reader and Lover of all things puzzles and cats. Alexandrea is a Biology major and Computer Science/Music double minor at Pacific University. A self-starter who loves a challenge, her passion is developing tools that bring people together to learn.
Image by Donna Cleveland (modified)

5 Reasons to Head to a Tech Conference

Spring and summer tech conferences are just around the corner. Here’s why you should consider looking for a tech conference near you.

1. New Ideas, New Inspiration

Whether you’re still in school or an experienced computer scientist, there’s always something new to learn. Tech conferences are great places to share ideas and get inspired. At a tech conference last year, I learned about the origins of the game Portal and also heard a great talk about approaches to innovation. Chances are that you’ll walk away with renewed purpose, a new project in mind or a new subject that you’d like to research.

2. Build Your Network

Networking is easier than ever with the help of sites like LinkedIn. You can use LinkedIn to expand your connections, but it’s great to meet like-minded students and professionals in computer science at a conference too. Some conferences have built-in networking sessions, so always check the conference agenda and make sure you bring your business cards. It’s nice if you have a networking goal in mind (ex. “I want to meet people who can tell me more about cyber security” or “I want to learn how to volunteer my time to a computer science related cause”), but also remember to keep an open mind and embrace learning opportunities in all their forms.

3. Represent Your Organization

If you’re a student, you can represent your school and possibly your school’s computer science club. At local conferences, younger students may look up to you to learn about your experiences and consider attending your school in the future. You can also exchange ideas with fellow students about computer science related activities and events. Professionals can represent their company in its best light and meet potential recruits, business partners or clients.

4. Stay Current

Conferences often have specialized sessions or lightning rounds of discussion topics. These are great ways to stay up to date on what the latest tools, challenges and breakthroughs are in a particular area. It’s a good idea to have a pen and notepad handy for any keywords you might want to remember for later. You can view these sessions as networking opportunities as well – chat with the person sitting next to you, ask a question if the moment is available, or talk to the speaker after the session.

5. Jobs and Internships

Finally, anyone looking for a job or internship has much to gain by attending a tech conference. The conference may have a career fair, in which case you can make use of the time to talk with companies, ask questions and hand out your resume. If you know certain companies will be at the career fair, take the time to do your research beforehand so that you can show how and why you’re interested in a particular company. The conference may also offer resume reviews, mock interviews or advice sessions on finding a job or internship. Don’t overlook the influence of a great conversation though: while you’re networking, mention if you’re looking for a job or internship.  The person you are talking to may not be able to offer you a position, but they might be able to point you in the right direction.

Here in the Portland metro area, the Northwest Regional Women in Computing conference and the ACT-W Portland conference will be held in mid-April, and scholarship applications to the attend the Grace Hopper Celebration are due on April 15th.


Interested in going to a tech conference but not sure about all the crowds and high energy? Rest assured that it’s not just you! Check out An Introvert’s Guide to Tech Conferences.


Image by Donna Cleveland (modified).

Image by miss karen

The Legacy of Grace Hopper

How much do you know about Grace Hopper? In celebration of Women’s History Month, here are some discussion questions to accompany The Queen of Code, a short 15 minute documentary released earlier this year by Gillian Jacobs.

  • What did you know about Grace Hopper before watching the documentary?
  • After watching the documentary, what surprised you most?

“I’ve driven a large number of people at least partially nuts. After all, insisting on talking to computers in plain English was a totally ridiculous idea and you couldn’t do that. Except it worked.” – Grace Hopper

  • Have you had a similar experience where someone thought your idea was totally ridiculous? What happened? What are some constructive ways to approach these kinds of situations?

“Even though she was a trailblazer, she never admitted that a trail needed to be blazed. She was very interesting in that respect.” – Kathleen Williams, Grace Hopper Biographer

  • How would you describe a trailblazer? To what extent should trailblazers advocate for others to follow in their stead?
  • How do you feel about having or needing role models to look up to?

“She’s like an Edison…like a Turing…and yet Hopper isn’t in those names in the history books and it needs to be and that’s one of the things we can fix.” – Megan Smith, Chief Technology Officer of the United States

  • Who are the most famous people in technology that you have learned about? What are some ways we might help others learn about people like Grace Hopper and the ENIAC women?

“One phrase I’ve always disliked is that awful one: “But we’ve always done it that way.” That’s why I kept that backward clock in my office.” – Grace Hopper

  • What is one way that you can incorporate your own “backward clock” into your life?

Image by miss karen.

Image by Bernard Goldbach

What Programming Teaches Us About Failure

Most programmers will tell you that they did not write a working program – or even a working function – on their first try. It often takes multiple attempts and revisions before reaching success. What do I mean by success? There are multiple ways of looking at success too, but today let’s talk about failure.

We tend to celebrate successes and sweep failures under the rug. As programmers,  we should examine failures more closely.

Squashing the Bugs

What do you do when you hit ‘build’ and your program has errors, or when your program runs but it’s buggy? Some people might bang their heads, feel frustrated or angry, and not care as much about trying to solve the problem. Others might be still frustrated but even more determined to smooth out all the wrinkles. Fixing bugs teaches us that it takes perseverance to pinpoint a problem and find a good solution. Mistakes along the way become an expected part of the problem-solving process.

Proactive Programming

You know how your program works and how to properly use it. Another person might not. Testing our programs and proactively coding against possible user errors helps the program run properly – it is also a valuable exercise in empathy. Preventing program failures partly means learning to imagine the ways that many different people might approach the program. In doing so, it is easier to create something that other people will find enjoyable to use.

Adopting a Growth Mindset

Think about something you do well. After a few months of programming, concepts like for loops probably seem like no big deal, but they probably weren’t as easy the first time. Learning to program involves making countless mistakes and learning from them along the way. Over time, we develop logic skills and knowledge that helps us learn more quickly. That knowledge was very likely acquired rather than a result of inborn talent. Programming is an example of how we benefit by embracing failures as challenges waiting to be solved, by approaching unfamiliar topics as something to yet be learned, and by seeing perseverance and effort as the keys to mastery.


Image by Bernard Goldbach


For more information about the Growth Mindset, see this video and other works by Stanford professor Carol Dweck.

Image by Alexander Scheffelaar Klots

Taking Your Coding to the Next Level

You’ve done the Hour of Code and Codecademy, or maybe you’ve taken a couple formal intro classes. Now what? Here are some great resources for staying sharp and taking your coding to the next level.

Code School

Pros: Code School offers fun-themed, polished instruction videos and exercises for Ruby, JavaScript, HTML/CSS, iOS, Git and electives like using the Google Drive API. The developers at Code School are constantly rolling out new content covering topics like Angular.js, Node.js and Express.js. These courses assume you have a basic understanding of the programming language at hand.

Cons: The iOS path has a course on Objective-C but not Swift, though the developers have blogged about Swift and it seems they’ve got a course in the works. If you’re not looking to learn about web technologies, however, this site won’t be very useful to you.

Cost: $29/mo individual subscription

Treehouse

Pros: Treehouse is track-based like Code School, but offers additional topics like Android development, PHP, Python, WordPress and even a track on how to start a business.

Cons: If you want access to industry talks, interviews and workshops, you’ll need a Pro account at double the cost of a basic subscription.

Cost: $25/mo individual basic subscription

PluralSight

Pros: If you’re interested in more than just web technologies, PluralSight probably has you covered with its 3500+ courses. There are some learning paths but the site is largely geared toward current professionals who might be preparing for a specific certificate or who need to learn a very specific topic. Here you’ll find videos on .NET, C#, databases, SQL, and methodology-based courses like agile and unit-testing.

Cons: There’s much less hand-holding on PluralSight, so it’s probably useful if you have an intermediate-level understanding of programming basics and/or are very self-directed. PluralSight videos aim to teach you what you need to know without fancier things like themed learning paths.

Cost: $29/mo individual basic subscription ($49/mo subscription for access to exercises, pre-/post-assessments and certificates)

TopCoder

Pros: TopCoder posts challenges in the major areas of design, development and data science for programmers to compete to come up with the best solution. This is a great place to show off your skills, potentially win prizes and get noticed by companies. Some companies use this site as part of their technical interview.

Cons: TopCoder doesn’t have courses to explicitly teach you skills. Rather, you can learn by taking on a challenge and doing your own research about the topic.

Cost: Free!

HackerRank

Pros: HackerRank easily lets you practice coding (from late beginner skills onwards) in over 30 programming languages. This is a great place to sharpen your skills in algorithms, artificial intelligence or functional programming. HackerRank consists mostly of exercises but has some tutorials like Linux Shell/Bash and Python. The farther up you move in the ranks by completing challenges, the more you could also get noticed by companies. Some companies use this site as part of their technical interview.

Cons: For the most part, HackerRank is more about completing challenges and teaching yourself something along the way. Let StackOverflow be your friendly companion; the forums specific to each challenge have some handy tips, too.

Cost: Free!

 


 

Why do I list having to teach yourself without formal video tutorials as a con? I wrote this guide with the beginner/intermediate programmer in mind – someone who probably considers themselves a student and isn’t used to the fact that ‘learning by doing’ can also mean solving a challenge by looking up lots of bits and pieces on the internet whenever you need it. You won’t have all the information you need all in one place: I think this is a good thing and more representative of what it’s like to be a programmer on the job. If you’re not used to taking the initiative to find a new tool or feature of a particular programming language, sites like TopCoder and HackerRank can make you feel like you have little direction. If you feel this way, I encourage you to dive in with the mindset that you now have more freedom to choose your direction and how you find new things to learn.

Happy coding!


Image by Alexander Scheffelaar Klots

Photo by Sean MacEntee

Productivity Tool Review: Todoist

To-do lists are a smart way to stay organized and be more productive. While traditional pad and paper may work well enough for some, Todoist is the best digital tool I’ve come across. I’ve been using Todoist regularly for the past six months and here’s why I can’t live without it.

Intuitive Planning

Todoist tasks are viewable by default based on what is due ‘Today’ and what is due in the ‘Next 7 Days’. When specifying due dates, Todoist understands what you mean by ‘every day’, ‘tomorrow’, ‘next wednesday’ and ‘every other day’. It also correctly interprets multiple day/date formats (so you can type ‘Wed’ if you’re too rushed to write ‘Wednesday’) and includes a pop-up calendar so that you can choose a date if that’s more convenient. Rescheduling tasks is easy with default options to postpone a task until the next day or the start of the next week. Bulk rescheduling is quick and works well in both the mobile and web versions.

Options for Organizing

Todoist helps you prioritize by offering four color-coded levels of prioritization. Tasks assigned a specific priority leads your to-do list to be automatically sorted from most to least important (priority labels are only overridden if there is a time associated with the task, such as ‘Pick up the mail today at 3pm’). Each project and task can be broken down into several indented sub-projects and sub-tasks if needed. The free version allows you to sort tasks by project and labels, while the premium version allows you to make the labels color-coded.

Screenshot by Alexandrea Beh

Screenshot by Alexandrea Beh

Effective Searching and Filtering

One of the best parts of Todoist is how well natural language processing has been integrated into the service: typing ‘3 days’ into the search pulls up the tasks for the next 3 days only, easily customizing the task view. You can also search by date (in the same variety of ways that Todoist understands setting a due date) and you can search by priority. Upgrading to Premium allows you to search using boolean operators (more on that later) and by task keyword (useful if you forgot when something was due and you don’t want to sort through dozens or hundreds of tasks to find the entry).

Cross-Platform and Cross-App Integration

Todoist is accessible on the web but also syncs through plugins and apps for Android phones, Android tablets, Windows, Macs, iPhones, iPads, Amazon devices, Chrome, Firefox, Gmail, Outlook, Thunderbird, and Postbox. I mainly use the web  and Android phone version, and am happy to say that syncing works well and that the Android app has great functionality. Some of the app’s best features are a widget with a customizable task view, ability to check off tasks or reschedule tasks through the widget without launching the app, and the ability to quickly add one or multiple tasks (through the notification bar) without leaving whatever app you’re currently in. For even more productivity magic, Todoist integrates with services such as Google Drive, Dropbox, IFTTT, and Zapier.

Shortcuts – A Programmer’s Dream

Screenshot by Alexandrea Beh

Screenshot by Alexandrea Beh

The Todoist UI is very sleek, fairly minimalist, and easy to work with for those who don’t want to learn complicated commands. There are options, however, that make the programmer part of me very, very happy. Within the free version, you can save long links and create an elegant-looking task with the format ‘webaddress (Task name)’ so that only the task name appears, but the text has been hyperlinked, making it easy to go to the saved website. In the web version, using ‘!!1’ at the end of creating a new task will mark the task with Priority 1, saving you a couple mouse clicks. The Premium version allows you to search tasks and filter using boolean operators: using ‘today & priority 1’, the AND operator, shows you tasks that are both due today and are top priorities while ‘today | priority 1’, the OR operator, shows you anything either due today or due at any time but labelled with priority 1. It’s not the functionality of the Linux command line, but for a productivity tool I’m more than satisfied.

Is Premium Worth It?

I recently upgraded to Todoist Premium (a year’s subscription is $29) and mostly enjoy the enhanced search and filtering options, as well as the ability to easily add emails as tasks. I feel that most people can get a lot out of the free version without ever needing to upgrade, although the Premium version has more color-coding options and more than doubles the number of projects you can have at one time (from 80 to 200 projects, each with up to 200 tasks in the Premium version instead of 150).

What Can’t Todoist Do?

For one, Todoist is definitely not your virtual personal assistant (it can integrate with Google Now though). It won’t try to be smart and anticipate what you want to know unless you’ve set up integrations for that kind of functionality. I would recommend that if you are looking to use a highly functional yet customizable task-tracker, especially one that works well across multiple platforms, then give Todoist a try!


Disclaimer: This post is in no way sponsored by Todoist.

Photo credit: Michael Josh Villanueva

Holiday Gift Guide: the TechReads Edition

It’s that time of year! As you compile your list of gifts for your friends and family this holiday season, consider these ten tech-related books.

For the Visionary:

The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson

This book is great for someone who values history as a way of appreciating what we have in the present, as well as a way of imagining how to keep moving forward. You’ll find no Great Man Theory here: in this book, Walter Isaacson, who also wrote Steve Jobs’ biography, explores how collaboration between many talented people brought about the digital age.

The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses by Eric Ries

If you know someone who dreams of (or is currently) starting their own business or launching a new project, this book provides scientifically-grounded advice on how to succeed. Even if someone doesn’t consider themselves an entrepreneur but is excited about innovation and staying on the cutting edge, this could be a great read.

For the DIY-Lover:

Zero to Maker: Learn (Just Enough) to Make (Almost) Anything by David Lang

This book would be great for that person who’s always tinkering around, taking stuff apart or trying to invent something new. They’ll find plenty of insights in this book before putting it down, ready for another experiment with renewed inspiration.

For the Gamer:

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

This book is commonly categorized as young adult fiction but would also be an enjoyable read for any adult who wants to reminisce about videogames and 80’s pop culture. Ready Player One takes place in a world where much of one’s life can take place in virtual reality; the founder of this virtual reality has left his fortune to whoever can solve a series logical puzzles and riddles in a 80’s-themed quest. The mission becomes not only to win a fortune but to determine how this virtual reality will be used to affect the rest of the world.

For Job and Internship Seekers:

Cracking the Coding Interview: 150 Programming Questions and Solutions by Gayle Laakmann McDowell

With examples in Java and C/C++, this is a book for someone who has had at least one year of coding experience and is looking for a job or internship in software development. One of the best features of this book is its detailed solutions at the back of the book. Even seasoned developers looking to change jobs might benefit from this book, as some of the examples are rather tricky/advanced.

Women in Tech:

Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg

Some of you might be tired of hearing this recommendation, and that’s okay. For those of you who haven’t heard of Lean In, this book is an inspiring call to action by Facebook’s COO to be better role models and foster empowering environments for women in the workplace. While not focused exclusively on the tech industry, there are plenty of insights here that, if anything, are even more appropriate. A new edition, Lean in for Graduates, was released this year.

Pioneer Programmer: Jean Jennings Bartik and the Computer that Changed the World.

This is the only autobiography in existence by one of the six female computer scientists who in 1946 programmed ENIAC, the world’s first all-electronic, programmable computer. Bartik, who led the team, sheds light on an oft-forgotten part of computing history and writes about what it was like to be a female pioneer in computer science. For more biographies on women in computer science, I would recommend researching Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper.

Other Biographies:

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

If you know someone who loves Apple products and would love learning about the life of its co-founder, this biography is a no-brainer. Walter Isaacson writes about Jobs’ personal and professional life, bringing to life one story behind the cultivation of this well-known company.

Alan Turing: the Enigma by Andrew Hodges

Alan Turing was a brilliant mathematician who developed theories for computing that heavily influenced the progression of computer science. Among many things, he developed the Turing Test which continues to play an important role in the study of artificial intelligence. An fyi: this book is on the lengthy side (about 600 pages).

Let’s Talk Tech and Psychology:

The Most Human Human: What Talking with Computers Teaches Us About What It Means to Be Alive by Brian Christian

This would be a great gift for someone who enjoys psychology and philosophy in addition to a love of technology. What does our view of computers say about our view of humans? This book is sure to generate an interesting discussion.


This is a special edition of TechReads, my series of technology-related book reviews. If you would like to suggest a book for a future TechReads article, please leave a comment below.

An Introvert’s Guide To Tech Conferences

Tech conferences are a great place to discover the latest technology ideas, products and jobs.

…tech conferences also tend to be noisy and crowded.

If you are like me and fall towards the introvert end of the introvert-extrovert spectrum, here are some tips for getting the most out of your conference experience. (If the term ‘introvert’ is new to you, I highly recommend looking up work by Susan Cain.)

You Don’t Have to Dwell on the Small Talk

Many introverts aren’t fond of small talk, and instead prefer an in-depth conversation. At a tech conference, small talk might be as little as introducing yourself and briefly touching on where you’re from and what you do. From there, it’s usually more than acceptable to jump into any technical topics you might have in common. Not sure what else to say? Ask and listen to what brings the other person to the conference. You’ll probably be talking shop in no time.

Be a Great Listener

Introverts tend to be great listeners. They often are curious and insightful: if you are tired of talking and find yourself in a conversation with someone who is more than happy to share a good story or piece of knowledge, listen carefully. They’ll feel more appreciated and by being curious and asking questions, you never know what you might learn.

Network and Follow Up

It may take longer for an introvert to think of questions and ways to follow up on a great conversation. If you’ve ever been stuck in a class discussion or meeting feeling like you have no idea what to say, only to have a great thought hit you several hours later, you know this feeling. This is not necessarily related to intelligence; sometimes an introvert’s thoughts need to ‘sit’ before they take on a more definitive form, and it is simply a different thought process from an extrovert’s. Collect those business cards and ask to connect with people on LinkedIn: later, you can strengthen your connection by sending someone a quick follow-up message once you’ve processed your thoughts, perhaps remarking that you enjoyed your conversation and wondered about [topic].

It’s Okay to Take a Break

Let’s face it: extroverts typically feel energized by being around more people and noise. Introverts might have fun in this environment for a while, but it’s also energy-draining for them. You might be having some great conversations but feel like you need a moment of peace and quiet to recharge before rejoining the crowd. Whether that’s a restroom break, time to grab some refreshments, or striking up a 1:1 conversation in a less noisy spot, know that you don’t have to be ‘on’ all the time. Chances are that you’re not the only one feeling a bit overwhelmed by the crowd.

Remember that it’s healthy to step outside of your comfort zone every now and then. The next time you consider attending a tech conference, challenge yourself to take some risks, speak up and be open to new opportunities to share your love of technology with those around you. Use your introvert strengths to handle the high-energy environment of the conference while exploring new ideas and meeting great people. There’s no telling what good things may happen.


I’m back! I plan on returning to my TechReads series in time for the holidays. Keep following iGirl Tech News to catch the TechReads-inspired gift guide I’ll be releasing in December.

Finding Your Writing Voice in a Digital Age

Finding your personal writing voice can be incredibly liberating and fun: finally you’re sharing your thoughts and it actually sounds like…well, you.  What is still a tale as old as time, and what has changed in this digital age?

Tell Me A Story

Writing is not a science, and there is no single way to find your personal writing voice. Instead, it is an ongoing set of experiences that you can pick and choose to learn from. Writing regularly, online and offline, is what has helped me the most.  Here are a few other tips and food for thought:

Regardless of the medium, writing is usually a form of communication from one person to another, so write to be understood. With this in mind, think of several positive adjectives that describe your personality. Then think about how you connect with other people as a result of those traits. Do you make people laugh? Unite your friends with a common cause? Ask questions from a different angle than most people? These traits can serve as a framework for what makes your writing voice sound like you.

Read other people’s writing, be it from blogs, news, trade journals, or books. Pay attention to what resonates with you, and why. Maybe it’s a casual phrase that is semi-professional but puts you at ease, or maybe it’s an analogy that helps snap an idea into place.

Credit: Arielle Nadel

Credit: Arielle Nadel

Take time for introspection and revisit things you’ve written before. What qualities are you most proud of? What do you wish you could improve? Be your own critic, but a constructive one. It also helps to seek feedback from outside sources, whether it is from an online forum or someone that you know.

Imagine that someone just gave a raving review of your writing (in the sense that film critics or book critics describe tone, content and how the piece makes the reader/audience feel). What would you want that review to say?

Going Digital

First, remember that online content is harder to truly delete compared to paper content, so proofread and make sure you’re reasonably comfortable with what you’ve written before sending it out to the world.

Writing in a digital medium means that you have even more flexibility in how to reach a potential audience:

If you don’t like writing long-form content but love digging up resources, Twitter might be the way to go. If you love using images to make a main point, explore blogs, Pinterest and Tumblr. Pinterest and Tumblr in particular provide a quick way to add your insight to another user’s content. Blogs and Facebook are probably the most versatile mediums of all, where you can write in short-form, long-form, post images and videos in any combination.

Of course, one of the biggest differences about writing online is that all of these mediums can be easily connected. Perhaps the content is not the same across all types, but your personal writing voice can unite them in a powerful way.


Due to upcoming personal obligations, I am sad to say that this is my last article. I’ve had so much fun writing for iGirlTechNews and I sincerely encourage anyone interested in writing to give it a try. Go out there, find your personal voice and share your thoughts and inspirations!


Featured Image by Alan Cleaver

TechReads: Fabricated – Part 2 (Controversies of 3D Printing)

3D printers make it easier to produce prosthetics and other custom products, much to the celebration of creative minds and makers. But like pretty much any technology, 3D printers can also bring trouble. Here are some of the top controversies surrounding 3D printing, as mentioned in Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman’s book Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing, along with additional resources for learning about these issues.

A Gray Area of Responsibility

A machine part malfunctions or breaks down, causing a fatal injury. The machine part was 3D printed. Under what circumstances is the death the responsibility of the user, manufacturer, design engineer of the machine part, and/or design engineer of the 3D printer? Michael Molitch-Hou provides industry insight on possible changes in liability issues. The complexity escalates further when we consider that 3D printing is also being used to develop living tissue, which may one day include entire organs.

It Isn’t Easy Being Green

3DPrintingGreen

Credit: edie newsroom

How do 3D printers measure up in terms of sustainability and going green? Instead of mass production, 3D printers can be used to manufacture an item only when it is needed, and the additive manufacturing process generates less waste. However, this model works for some products better than others. Factor in shipping/transportation costs, how easily the product can be made out of recyclable parts, and how easily the product can be recycled, and suddenly it’s not so easy to decide how much sustainability we’re really looking at. If you’re curious, Jonathan Bardelline and Catherine Wilson discuss this issue in more detail.

Getting the Red Light

3D printers are becoming cheaper, and the Internet provides increasingly ready access to design files for countless objects. This puts a strain on the concept of intellectual property.  How does this change the safety of items such as food, drugs and guns, which are currently regulated to some extent in many parts of the world? For example, in early 2013 the US government ordered a man to take his design files for a 3D printed gun off the Internet, but not before many other people downloaded and shared the file.

A Changing Job Market

Will 3D printers eliminate jobs or create jobs? You could argue for both sides, but let’s reframe the scenario: 3D printers seem set to eventually replace many of today’s manual laborers. However, the authors of Fabricated highlight an increasing demand for the design engineers that will continue to drive the creative side of using this technology. In this article, Rodolfo Lentejas explores some other ways that the job market could shift, including impacts on retail. For a more historical perspective, check out this column by History, Future Now.

Machines Making Machines

Credit: MIT Technology Review

Credit: MIT Technology Review

It would save a lot of time if a 3D printer could fix itself and print its own replacement parts. What if it had enough artificial intelligence to make better parts for itself or print entirely new, more sophisticated machines? The author, inventor and Google Director of Engineering Ray Kurzweil made popular the concept of the singularity, which includes the idea that machines will keep developing smarter machines until one day, artificial intelligence will have surpassed human intelligence. Kurzweil calculates that the singularity could be upon us by 2045. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen argues the flip side here, reasoning why the possibility of the singularity is much further down the road.


This article is part of a series called TechReads, my ongoing series of technology-related book reviews. If you would like to suggest a book for a future TechReads article, please leave a comment below – and if you’ve read Fabricated, I’d love to hear what you think!


Featured Image: Evan Leeson

TechReads: Fabricated (The New World of 3D Printing) – Part 1

Hello World! This 3D sugar printer gets tested by printing messages onto toast, a reminder that the virtual and physical worlds are becoming evermore combined thanks to 3D printing technology. Just what is 3D printing anyway? Authors Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman explore its origins, new developments, controversies and increasing applications in their book Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing.

3D printing is a technology that takes design instructions from a computer and proceeds to form 3D, physical objects from those instructions. There are two main types of 3D printers. The first kind places layer after layer of raw materials (usually kept in tubes) until the object is materialized. This is the kind of printer that is usually available for commercial use. The second kind of 3D printer actively binds raw materials together using heat or light, sometimes involving a laser. This type of 3D printer is more dangerous and typically is found in industry and research settings.

My strongest lasting impression from this book was that there are many more useful applications of 3D printing than I would have thought. The examples of 3D printed objects that I’ve seen so far have tended to be plastic molds or models – little trinkets and cool figurines mostly with entertainment value. As this technology becomes more sophisticated, other areas where we’ll start to see 3D printing might include:

Custom-Fit Prosthetics and Dental Work

If you’ve had Invisalign braces or needed a crown on your tooth, there’s a good chance that what the orthodontist or dentist put in your mouth was in fact 3D printed to fit you. Prosthetic limbs are also being increasingly 3D printed, and for some people it’s becoming a way to change the perception of disability.

3D Printed Food

Would you eat that ‘Hello World’ toast? It turns out that food is one of the best mediums for testing 3D printers that use nozzles and soft materials. shortbreadMany designers and engineers realized that printing shortbread through the printer nozzles is the perfect way to create prototypes that hold their shape but are easily *cough* disposable. Testing aside, some engineers are also exploring ways to make new candy and other foods actually meant for consumption. A good 3D-printed burger is a quite a long ways off though.

Bioprinting

Right now, it’s not so easy to get those cells in just the right place, interacting as they would in nature. Scientists and engineers say they’re not ready to print entire 3D organs (or humans or other creatures) but this application sets off a whole set of legal issues and possible public health solutions that would make any science fiction writer proud. Anthony Atala talks about 3D printing and the organ-donor problem in this TED Talk.

[ted id=1088]

A Whole New Fashion

Talk about accessorizing – it’s now possible to make Do It Yourself not with pliers, but with 3D printers that can produce custom jewelry and other items. The fashion industry is experimenting with new ways to combine materials and fabrics, making things such as this dress. What about a sturdier 3D printed shoe that’s all made into one piece without any glue (rhyme not intended)?  So long as it’s comfortable, I think I’d try that.

Manufacturing New Materials

3D printers are also providing an opportunity to combine materials in new ways. For example, it is possible to combine wood and plastic to create something with a strength similar to steel. It is also possible to create a whole material that is flexible in one direction but not another – so for example, this material could be used in a knee replacement surgery so that a person could flex their knee but not have to worry about it twisting out of place.

With so many applications, it doesn’t look like 3D printing is going away soon. If you’re curious about what ordinary people can make using the technology (or to try your hand at designing something yourself), check out Shapeways, a 3D printing marketplace and community where users design, buy and sell 3D printed items.

FabricatedBookOverall, I would rate this book 4.5 out of 5. The authors themselves acknowledge that it is the type of book that is not necessarily meant to be read cover to cover since some chapters get very technical, so don’t feel obligated to read every page if you’re not interested in learning about that topic. If you want to know how the technology works but not how it’s affecting the market or why there might be legal issues, that’s okay (although I would encourage readers to broaden their horizons). The book is full of examples that show how 3D printing is already affecting and will influence the physical world, and I really appreciated the amount of research it must have taken to find such a variety of examples.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where I’ll explore some of the controversies surrounding 3D printing.


This article is part of a series called TechReads, my new ongoing series of technology-related book reviews. If you would like to suggest a book for a future TechReads article, please leave a comment below – and if you’ve read Fabricated, I’d love to hear what you think!